San Diego May 25, William Zures committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at a Carlsbad beach, according to the county medical examiner's office. Zures, who lived at Santaluz, the luxury golf community next to Rancho Santa Fe, ran Zures Companies, a financial services concern in Solana Beach. He provided seed capital to numerous emerging companies and also got into real estate projects.
Business-community rumors indicate Zures had financial trouble. He is listed as a founding member of the Church of the Nativity, a Catholic parish in Rancho Santa Fe, and people in the financial community say that fellow members who invested with him are worried about their funds.
Zures definitely used his parish to attract funds. He was chief executive of Horizon Strategies LLC, which raised $2 million to $2.5 million to put into industrial real estate. "The rumor was the investors were from the Church of the Nativity," says Del Mar real estate guru Sanford R. Goodkin, who is chairman of Horizon. Goodkin confirms that at least $700,000 to $800,000 came from the church, a particular member, or a group of members. The pastor of the church could not be reached, and others refused to comment on the record.
Entrepreneurs who recruit investment money from fellow church members are appealing to an affinity group. And affinity-group scams pluck hundreds of millions of dollars from trusting souls each year. It can't be said yet that Zures was running a scam or even that his problems related to his businesses, but it can be said that investors should not believe all members of their religious or ethnic group can be trusted.
Affinity-group con artists prey upon specific groups of people -- religious, ethnic, professional, the elderly. "The fraudsters who promote affinity scams frequently are -- or pretend to be -- members of the group," warns the Securities and Exchange Commission. "These scams exploit the trust and friendship that exist in groups of people who have something in common," and often, an unwitting minister or do-gooder will vouch for the investment scheme and become a victim along with other members of the group.
The affinity group is the target. Another kind of scam is the vehicle for entrapping the target. Victims are promised outrageously high returns through one of a number of fraud vehicles: Ponzi schemes, promissory-note scams, viaticals scams, pyramid schemes, phony-stock swindles, hard-money lending capers, or prime-banknote scams, among many. (These scams will be described below.)
San Diego has been a haven for such ripoffs through the years. The next alleged elder abuse scam to hit the headlines may well be the case of Kevin Cole and Frank Robles, both in jail, who were bound over to trial this month. They had 16 known victims, and 14 were between the ages of 74 and 92, says deputy district attorney Lisa Crawford. From their Mira Mesa base, the pair promised the elderly 10 to 14 percent a year through a promissory-note scam, a promise to pay high interest rates. As the Securities and Exchange Commission warns, usually the promise is worth nothing. Cole and Robles "came to the victims' homes. The people were so old, so confused," says Crawford. Cole and Robles are charged with making false representations, among other things.
Another affinity-group scam that may get more public attention is the case of Edmundo and Luisa Rubi and Genaro Aquino, who have already been charged criminally with defrauding South Bay Filipinos of $25 million through a prime-banknote scam that promised returns of 3 to 6 percent a month (yes, a month). The Rubis are in jail; Aquino is out on bail. They face charges of mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money. In such a scam, victims are promised huge returns via rapid-fire trading of financial instruments through offshore institutions. But there is no trading.
The new wrinkle is that in a civil suit, San Diego attorney Eric J. Benink charges that Wells Fargo Bank aided and abetted the fraud, even though it knew that the investment program was highly suspect. Wells Fargo issued certificates of deposit in the name of the Rubis' enterprise, even though it knew they were wiring money offshore, selling unregistered investment contracts, and had lied in obtaining a letter of credit from the bank, according to the suit. Wells Fargo denies the charges.
In January, Carmen John Palmieri, who had a Mission Valley office, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for fleecing 191 people, almost all elderly, in a $13 million viaticals scam. In viaticals, a terminally ill person sells his or her life-insurance policy to a broker in return for a portion of the death benefit. The broker then sells shares of the policy to investors. But abuses abound. Palmieri, creating phony documents, sold nonexistent viaticals contracts.
Old Town money advisor Yves S. Bordeleau, who drove fancy cars and had two airplanes, would take his elderly clients on lavish one-day trips each year. Then he would take the old folks' money and divert it to an account in the Cayman Islands, a smelly Caribbean tax haven. In mid-2000, Bordeleau was sentenced to 16 years in the state slammer for grand theft and forgery.
In 1999, Randall S. Kuhlman was sentenced to five years in prison; he had promised elderly investors 18.5 percent annual returns. He told them they were buying pay phones, but Kuhlman's company didn't own those phones. It was a $60 million Ponzi scheme -- that is, early investors were paid off with money that came in from later investors.
Then there was Nicholas Charles Herbert, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 1999. He would cruise an area and figure out that someone was not living in a home. It was almost always an elderly person who was caring for someone at another location. By forging escrow instructions, notes, trust deeds, and appraisals, Herbert would steal the equity out of the home. It was only partly an affinity scam because the victims didn't know Herbert and had no idea he was stealing their homes.
Robert G. Dukes worked a doubleheader, wooing the elderly with quotes from the Bible and a do-good pitch: investors could make 15 to 20 percent a year by putting money in rundown properties that would be restored. His Mason Gordon Co. set up more than 90 limited partnerships. But there were drug and gang problems at the properties. Dukes juggled the books, pocketing investors' money. In 1996, he got two years for grand theft.
Religion has been a recurring hook in San Diego. Fundamentalist Christians were wooed into a $12 million scam to exploit alleged inventions of Stephen H. Smith. Management opened investor meetings with a prayer, then described the offshore-money flow. Federal prosecutors indicted eight people; two confessed, and more are expected to do so this month.
Ethnic scams abound in San Diego. In the late 1990s, Hispanics were targeted in a pyramid scheme called Network Associates. In pyramids, people pay money to get in; then, as they recruit more people, they move up and finally collect a pot of money -- unless the chain breaks, which it inevitably does. In 1996, Frank Campos got five years' probation for selling houses he did not own to unsuspecting Latinos who did not speak English.
Jewish people were the major victims of the $200 million Pioneer Mortgage hard-money lending scam of the early 1990s. In such scams, people who can't get credit pledge their second-rate real estate to get a loan at an interest rate of, say, 20 percent. Then investors get 13 to 15 percent and the middleman keeps the rest. But when real estate collapses, so do such schemes. In this case, the middleman was Gary Naiman, who was active in his synagogue and in Israel. He went to prison.
In the mid-1990s, Mission Valleybased BAOA, Inc., sold a board game, Black Americans of Achievement. Rev. Jesse Jackson joined its advisory board in 1997, apparently not aware that the original East County investors had received their stock through an offshore (Cayman Islands) institution, thus attempting to dodge capital gains taxes. They later got into trouble for another offshore scam, and the company's top executive went to prison for a different caper. San Diego and scamsters have a special affinity. It's not surprising that affinity-group scams thrive here.